Did you recently lose a loved one due to someone else’s negligent or wrongful actions? Are you considering legal action? If so, you should understand the wrongful death statute of limitations in your state and how it applies to wrongful death cases.

A Tacoma wrongful death attorney specializing in statutes of limitations can provide clarity on applicable laws, ensuring that you can receive fair compensation.

What Is a Statute of Limitations?

A statute of limitations sets a specific deadline by which parties must initiate a given legal action. This law applies to various types of legal cases, including criminal prosecutions and civil lawsuits. Once the filing window starts, it lasts for a certain period, which varies depending on the type of case and the state where the incident occurred.

Wrongful Death Statute of Limitations

The purpose of a statute of limitations is to ensure fairness. As time passes, evidence often becomes less reliable, making it harder for the court to reach a fair verdict. Statutes of limitations encourage individuals to file their lawsuits promptly while the facts are fresh and the evidence is more likely to be intact and available. 

Furthermore, statutes of limitations provide potential defendants certainty that they won’t face the possibility of legal action indefinitely for past events.

Different types of legal claims have different statutes of limitations. In most states, the statute of limitations for wrongful death lawsuits imposes a filing deadline that ranges from one to three years.

The filing window for these cases begins on the date when the wrongful death occurs, which is not necessarily the date when the wrongful act occurs.

If you know or suspect you have a legal case, you should identify and understand these time limits to protect your legal rights. If you are considering legal action and need to figure out how much time you have to act, consult a lawyer to understand the specific filing window applicable to your case.

What Happens if You Try to Sue After the Legal Deadline?

If you try to file a lawsuit after the applicable statutory deadline, the court typically will not hear your case. This means that if you attempt to sue, the defendant (the party you are suing) can ask the court to dismiss the case based on the expired statute of limitations. In most instances, the court will agree to this request.

When the court dismisses a case for being past the statutory deadline, it does so without considering the details of the case. This means that even if you have a valid claim and substantial evidence, it won’t matter if you filed the case after the deadline.

The court does not evaluate whether you were right in these instances. It simply follows the law that states a time limit exists for starting legal actions.

Understanding the statute of limitations for your case type and state is essential if you believe your loved one’s death resulted from a wrongful act.

If you know or suspect you have a wrongful death claim, talk to a lawyer as soon as possible. They can advise you on the time limits that apply to your situation and take action on your behalf within the legal filing window.

Remember that the statute of limitations sets a deadline for filing a lawsuit, but this deadline does not directly apply to insurance claims.

You can file an insurance claim even after the statute of limitations for a lawsuit has expired. However, this doesn’t mean that the statute of limitations has no bearing on insurance claims. 

If the statute of limitations for your case has passed, the insurance company knows you can no longer take legal action in court. This significantly reduces or eliminates your negotiating power. Therefore, it’s still necessary to be mindful of these deadlines, even when dealing with insurance claims.

Why Do We Need Statutes of Limitations?

Statutes of limitations play an essential role in our legal system. They are not just there to impose arbitrary deadlines. They serve several important purposes that allow our courts to maintain fairness and efficiency in the pursuit of justice.

Here are some key reasons why we need these laws:

  • Ensuring Evidence Quality: Evidence can become lost or less reliable over time. Witnesses can forget details, or physical evidence can degrade. Statutes of limitations ensure that we bring cases to court while the evidence is still relatively fresh and more likely to be accurate.
  • Promoting Timely Resolutions: These deadlines encourage individuals to pursue their legal claims promptly. This promotes swift and efficient resolutions to legal disputes, which are beneficial for all parties in a given case and for the legal system as a whole.
  • Protecting Potential Defendants: These laws prevent potential defendants from unfair outcomes after the deterioration of evidence and witness memories. Without them, the courts might be more likely to hold innocent people responsible based on faulty grounds.
  • Preventing Ongoing Uncertainty: Statutes of limitations provide closure. Without them, individuals or businesses could constantly be under threat of legal action, which could create ongoing uncertainty and stress.
  • Conserving Judicial Resources: Courts have limited resources and time. By setting time limits on when people can file lawsuits, statutes of limitations make the courts’ caseloads more manageable, ensuring that old cases don’t overwhelm the system.

Are There Exceptions to the Statute of Limitations in a Wrongful Death Case?

Yes. While statutes of limitations set specific time limits for filing wrongful death claims, there are rare exceptions that can extend or alter these deadlines in certain states.

Understanding the following exceptions is essential as they could significantly affect your ability to pursue a wrongful death claim:

The Discovery Rule

This rule is fundamental in wrongful death cases where the cause of death isn’t immediately apparent. In states with this rule, the filing window might not start until the time when you discover, or reasonably should have discovered, the cause of death. 

For example, if a person dies due to a medical condition that their doctor misdiagnosed, and the misdiagnosis comes to light years later, the filing window would start from the discovery of the misdiagnosis, not the date of death. 

Minor Plaintiffs

If the deceased person’s dependents are minors, some states recognize the need to protect their rights until they are capable of making legal decisions independently. 

In such cases, the filing window could pause or toll until the minor reaches the age of majority, typically 18. This means a child who loses a parent to wrongful death can wait until they are an adult to file a lawsuit. 

Fraudulent Concealment

If there’s evidence that someone intentionally concealed vital information related to the wrongful death claim, this could extend the statute of limitations.

This scenario often arises in cases where the defendant might have played a role in the death and then acted to hide their involvement. 

When a defendant hides their involvement in a wrongful death, they prevent the deceased’s family from discovering essential facts. When such deceit comes to light, some laws allow families to extend the deadline to file the claim.


In cases where an individual with a wrongful death claim is legally incapacitated or disabled, several states acknowledge the need to toll the filing window.

This pause continues until the individual is no longer disabled or has a legal representative to act on their behalf. This provision preserves the right to seek justice for those who are not in a position to pursue their legal rights immediately after a wrongful death.

Does the Statute of Limitations Differ If the Wrongful Death Results from a Criminal Act?

Wrongful Death Claim

In some states, the filing window for a wrongful death claim might pause while a related criminal case is ongoing. This means that the clock for filing a civil lawsuit stops running until the government resolves its criminal case. 

Tolling the wrongful death statute of limitations allows the criminal justice process to continue without interference from a civil lawsuit. It also clarifies the criminal case’s outcome for the victim’s family before they pursue civil action.

It’s worth noting that the absence of a criminal conviction doesn’t prevent a family from filing a wrongful death lawsuit. The standards of proof are different in criminal and civil cases.

A family can still pursue a civil wrongful death claim even if the government did not pursue criminal charges or if there was an acquittal in the criminal case.

These laws can vary widely by state and the specifics of each case. A legal professional will explain how the statute of limitations applies in cases of wrongful death resulting from criminal acts. A lawyer can provide guidance on the appropriate time frames and legal strategies in these complex situations.

Is There a Different Statute of Limitations for Wrongful Death Claims Involving Government Entities?

When a wrongful death claim involves a government entity, the statute of limitations often differs from other wrongful death claims. This difference arises because claims against government entities follow specific rules and procedures.

First, the time limit for filing a wrongful death claim against a government entity is often shorter than in cases against individuals or companies.

In many states, you have only a few months to initiate a claim, compared to years in other wrongful death cases. This shorter period is part of the government’s legal protection, providing quicker resolution of claims and better use of public resources.

Additionally, before you can file a lawsuit, you often must first file a formal claim with the appropriate government agency. This is a necessary step and must occur within a specific time frame. It details the nature of your wrongful death claim and the compensation you seek. The government then has a chance to respond, which might mean offering a settlement or denying the claim.

If the government denies your claim or fails to respond within a certain period, you then have the right to file a lawsuit in court. However, you must also initiate this lawsuit within a specific time frame, which starts from the date of the government’s response or lack of response to your initial claim.

You must be aware of these different requirements and timelines when dealing with wrongful death claims involving government entities. Adherence to these specific rules is necessary to avoid losing the right to seek compensation. Due to the complexity of these cases, consulting a lawyer with experience in government claims can significantly increase your chances of a successful outcome.

How Long Does It Take to Resolve a Wrongful Death Claim?

Rick Park, Attorney for Wrongful Death in Tacoma
Rick Park, Wrongful Death

The time it takes to resolve a wrongful death claim can vary greatly depending on several factors. Geneåçrally, it can take anywhere from a few months to several years. The duration depends on the complexity of the case, the amount of evidence, the cooperation of all parties, and the legal system in your state.

Cases where the facts are clear and the parties agree on the cause of death and compensation can settle quickly, often within months. However, more complex cases, especially those involving disputes over who is at fault or the claim’s value, can take much longer. These cases often require thorough investigations, substantial evidence, and lengthy negotiations, and they typically lead to a trial.

A wrongful death lawyer plays a vital role in this process.

They can keep your case on the right track by:

  • Evaluating the Case: A lawyer can assess the strengths and weaknesses of your case and estimate its potential value.
  • Gathering Evidence: They collect necessary evidence, such as medical records, accident reports, and witness statements, to build a strong case.
  • Handling Legal Procedures: Lawyers handle all the complex legal procedures and ensure that your case meets all relevant deadlines.
  • Negotiating with Insurance Companies: Experienced lawyers can negotiate forcefully with insurance companies to strive for a fair settlement.
  • Representing You in Court: If your case goes to trial, a lawyer will represent you in court, presenting your case and arguing on your behalf.

Remember, every wrongful death claim is unique, and various factors influence its duration. A lawyer can streamline this process, tackle challenges as they arise, and work toward a favorable outcome for your case.

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